Here’s the deal: YouTube is a platform for anyone. But YouTube chooses to promote channels and personalities that the company deems worthy of views by pushing them on Twitter, or placing them in prominent spots on the YouTube homepage. The support of YouTube can launch a creator’s career, and turn mid-sized personalities into mega-stars. Sure, the company promotes YouTubers who have already garnered a substantial audience, but they are not merely reflecting precisely whatever is popular on the platform, but helping to create and shape their service. Their choices are a statement of values for the site.
I’m black. I’m a YouTuber. And I’ve felt like YouTube rarely promotes people of color. But this sort of thing is hard to prove. So, back in February, which is Black History Month, I decided to count how often they promoted black talent with their 49-million-follower Twitter feed. Through the whole month, YouTube sent out 15 tweets promoting black creators. And I’m being generous with that: all but five of the promoted black creators were Grammy award-winning musicians. Basically just a handful of not-already-famous black people got a helping hand.
Meanwhile, in the same month, YouTube sent out 167 tweets promoting white creators, many with smaller, more niche followings.
YouTube doesn’t only promote talent in online venues. Last spring, they also ran a traditional advertising campaign with billboards, train wraps, and television commercials. To the naked eye, the three young women used in the ads look the same: thin, young, light-skinned, with brown hair. And although one of the featured YouTubers, Michelle Phan, is Asian, all three came from the same “lifestyle” vertical within YouTube. Many in NYC couldn’t even tell the difference between them:
I asked one of the most popular YouTube stars, IISuperwomanII, what she thought about being left out of promotional efforts like the advertising campaign. “It’s annoying,” she said. “There’s been times when I’ve gone to events and I can be standing right next to another YouTuber and be talking — and if you strip away all of the statistics, not that numbers and subscribers are the be-all and say-all, but [it could be someone] I have more subs than, more views than, and I’m thinking, ‘what is the only difference between me and this other person?’ and it’s that I am an Indian female and they are a white male… I’ve been treated like crap so many times in that situation.”
Even if YouTube isn’t trying to systematically promote more white people than people of color, there’s a deeper question about what kind of responsibility a platform like YouTube has to promote the diversity that exists within its community. One could argue that YouTube simply promotes what its massive audience already likes; they are merely following the dictates of the crowd. And it’s true that, excluding worldwide superstars like Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, there are arguably fewer than 30 creators darker than a paper bag among the top 500 YouTubers.
“I think there’s people from all walks of life on YouTube, but I think many people of color struggle to reach the same level of visibility on YouTube as white content creators,” YouTuber Franchesca Ramsey told Fusion. “Historically audiences are more likely to gravitate towards creators that look like them, and are used to/comfortable seeing POC in very limited or more stereotypical roles.”
And there are some reasons for the subscriber gap that are embedded right in their platform’s mechanics. The rampant racism in YouTube’s notorious comments sections and the inefficacy of the “block” and “ban” buttons make it harder for diverse creators to work on YouTube than on other social networks. On Facebook, for example, if I block someone, they can no longer access my content and I don’t have to see their rude comments. When I block someone on YouTube, other viewers can’t see nasty comments, but I still can — and those abusive users can still see all of my videos. While specific data is hard to come by, there is certainly circumstantial evidence that it is more difficult to cultivate an audience when you are a person of color working in such a hostile environment.
“There is so much stress in creating an idea for a video, then writing the script, then performing on camera, then editing that video for hours, then waiting more hours to upload the video, then rushing to put crap in the info box and tags–all so you can just be called a f****** and a n*****?” said “GodGazi,” an extremely outspoken YouTuber of color. Recently, he has switched to posting video content on Facebook, citing the hateful speech that erupted in his YouTube comments. “Facebook’s report and block features are no joke. They could be better but they’re MUCH better than YouTube. If I block someone they are TOTALLY blocked and they can’t see me at all! If they make a fake account I report that account and Facebook shuts it down quickly.”
Another long-time YouTuber, who works in corporate HR (and who asked to remain anonymous, since she keeps her day job and her YouTube life separate), told me that she believes YouTube has a duty to build a community reflective of the world at large.
“Diversity isn’t just opening the doors to all people,” she told me. “It’s going out into historically underserved, oppressed, and disadvantaged communities and saying ‘This space is for you, too.’”
I reached out to a YouTube spokesperson and asked how they decide what to promote on their social channels and what the criteria is for YouTubers to receive advertising dollars. I asked if they thought YouTube had a diversity problem, if there was anyone on staff or any initiative that focused on making the platform more accepting or supportive of people of color. I asked specifically about February and why there were so few diverse creators featured on their massive Twitter page. I asked point-blank, of the number of creators they are investing in, how many of them are people of color?
YouTube would only say this: “YouTube is the largest open media platform in the world. Anyone, anywhere can upload videos, cultivate a following and even profit from the content they create,” a spokesperson told me. “That openness has led to an incredibly diverse library of videos, reflecting a broad spectrum of beliefs, races, sexualities, cultures and classes that are underrepresented elsewhere.”
YouTube is clearly reluctant to make a public statement about the diversity of its promotional efforts. But other organizations that support YouTube creators have taken a more active stance to fostering inclusion. VidCon is an annual gathering of YouTube creators co-founded by CEO, Hank Green. They’ve long tried to highlight up-and-coming YouTubers, and Green has been especially vocal about the need to promote creators of color.
“We live in a racist society,” he told me. “And, to some extent, all humans are inherently biased. In order to make the world a better place, we can’t just say ‘Well, we feature the people and the content our attendees ask for the most.’ because that’s like saying ‘We’re happy with the way society is and have no interest in using our influence to change it,’” he said. “We’re not happy with the way society is, and we’re very pleased to have some cultural force that, we hope, is able to exert some influence.”
Even VidCon, though, has struggled at times with inclusion. At last year’s convention, one wildly popular black YouTuber, Adande Thorne (his fans know him as swoozie) was left out entirely. Thorne went anyway, and did an 8-hour signing/meet and greet the first day, followed by a 16-hour signing the next — all outside the convention hall.
“Adande is certainly not the only creator we’ve unintentionally snubbed over the years,” Green said, “and there are others that we intentionally snubbed only to discover that the limited amount of research we can do did not uncover the depth of their relationship with their audience, or the sharpness of their opinions or strategies as a creator, or that they were doing truly fascinating things with the medium that we just never noticed. Our failure to discover those things is a failure both to those creators and the community.”
In my own time on YouTube, I’ve found the most-effective way to grow my channel is to collaborate with bigger YouTubers, many of whom are white. There were major moments of growth in subscriber counts and video views on my channel thanks in part to some white creators realizing that things weren’t going to change on the platform in terms of diversity without deliberate movement to change it, and recognizing that with a simple tweet or Tumblr post, they could help me out. They had to be the ones to help elevate diverse talent.
I’m not giving up on YouTube, though. I still proudly point to it as the catalyst to much of my success and opportunities (even here, at Fusion). The platform is great and gives us the power to share our stories. My only wish is that YouTube would hold itself accountable for racism on its platform, and make an effort to signal that diversity and inclusion are things it cares about.
After all, 39% of Americans are people of color. Worldwide, people of color are in the majority. Don’t those people deserve to see content that reflects their lives on YouTube? Even television is brimming with diversity at the moment. The unprecedented ratings for Fox’s Empire, ABC’s Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, and the demand for CBS’s upcoming pilot starring Laverne Cox have proven that America is craving diverse talent and entertainment.
It is a strange irony that mainstream television may end up better reflecting the current and future demographics of America than its new-media darling.